Grey was the default colour of death, Roy Grace thought. Grey bones. Grey ash when you were cremated. Grey tombstones. Grey X-rayed dental records. Grey mortuary walls. Whether you rotted away in a coffin or in a storm drain, all that was eventually left of you would be grey.
Grey bones lying on a grey steel post-mortem table. Being probed by grey steel instruments. Even the light in here was grey, strangely diffused ethereal light that seeped in through the large opaque windows. Ghosts were grey too. Grey ladies, grey men. There were plenty of them in the post-mortem room of the Brighton and Hove City Mortuary. The ghosts of thousands of unfortunate people whose remains had ended up here, inside this grim bungalow with its grey, pebbledash-rendered walls, residing behind one of its grey steel freezer locker doors before their penultimate journey to an undertaker’s premises, then burial or cremation.
He shuddered. He couldn’t help it. Despite the fact that he minded coming here less these days, because the woman he loved was in charge, it still gave him the creeps.
Gave him the creeps to see the skeleton, with its artificial fingernails and fronds of winter wheat-coloured hair still attached to the skull.
And it gave him the creeps to see all the green-gowned figures in the room. Frazer Theobald, Joan Major, Barry Heath – the latest addition to the team of Coroner’s Officers for the area, a short, neatly dressed, poker-faced man, recently retired from the police force, whose grim job it was to attend not only all murder scenes but also sudden-death scenes, such as traffic accident fatalities and suicides, and then the post-mortems. There was also the SOCO photographer, recording every step of the process. Plus Darren, Cleo’s assistant, a sharp, good-looking and pleasant-natured lad of twenty with fashionably spiky black hair, who had started life as a butcher’s apprentice. And Christopher Ghent, the tall, studious forensic odontist, who was occupied taking soft-clay impressions of the skeleton’s teeth.
And finally Cleo. She hadn’t been on duty, but had decided that, as he was working, she might as well too.
Sometimes Roy found it hard to believe that he really was dating this goddess.
He watched her now, tall and leggy and almost impossibly beautiful in her green gown and white wellies, long blonde hair clipped up, moving around this room, her room, her domain, with such ease and grace, sensitive but at the same time impervious to all its horrors.
But all the time he was wondering if, in some terrible irony, he was witnessing the woman he loved laying out the remains of the woman he had once loved.
The room smelled strongly of disinfectant. It was furnished with two steel post-mortem tables, one fixed and the other, on which the remains of the woman now lay, on castors. There was a blue hydraulic hoist by a row of fridges with floor-to-ceiling doors. The walls were tiled in grey and a drainage gully ran all the way around. Along one wall was a row of sinks, with a coiled yellow hose. Along another were a wide work surface, a metal cutting board and a glass-fronted display cabinet filled with instruments, some packs of Duracell batteries and grisly souvenirs that no one else wanted – mostly pacemakers – removed from victims.
Next to the cabinet was a wall chart listing the name of the deceased, with columns for the weight of their brain, lungs, heart, liver, kidneys and spleen. All that was written on it so far was ‘ANON. WOMAN’.
It was a sizeable room but it felt crowded this afternoon, as it always did during a post-mortem by a Home Office pathologist.
‘There are four fillings,’ Christopher Ghent said, to no one in particular. ‘Three white composite and one gold inlay. An all-porcelain bridge from upper right six to four, not cheap. No amalgams. All high-quality stuff.’
Grace listened, trying to remember what dental work Sandy had had. She had been fastidious about her teeth. But the description was too technical for him.
Joan Major was unpacking, from a large case, a series of plaster of Paris models. They sat there on square black plastic plinths like broken archaeological fragments from an important dig. He had seen them before, but he always found it hard to get his head around the subtle differences they illustrated.
When Christopher Ghent finished reciting his dental analysis, Joan began to explain how each model showed the comparison of different stages of bone development. She concluded by stating that the remains were female, around thirty years old, give or take three years.
Which continued to cover the age Sandy had been when she disappeared.
He knew he should put that from his mind, that it was unprofessional to be influenced by any personal agenda. But how could he?